Six feet blunder
Restoration is in the future for God’s acre

November 13, 2003
by Michel Cicero

There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you,
There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you,
There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you,
See that my grave is kept clean.
—Blind Lemon Jefferson

If it’s true that a society can be judged by how it treats its dead, Venturans could well be on a slow train to Hell thanks to the city’s decision more than three decades ago to remove upwards of 600 tombstones and burial markers from a dilapidated cemetery in the name of beautification.

The majority of today’s visitors to the verdant “Cemetery Park” on the outskirts of downtown have no idea that 3,000 dead lay directly underfoot. Were it not for the very occasional bronze grave marker, there would be nothing to distinguish the park as a place of interment. One man plans to change that.

Steve Schleder examines "a major heresy."

With his campaign to “Restore St. Mary’s” (the Catholic portion of the cemetery’s original name) Steve Schleder, an architectural restoration expert, hopes to award due recognition to every individual lying in an unmarked grave, irrespective of religious affiliation.

“You’ve got to respect the dead,” said Schleder. “You’ve got to respect the people whose shoulders you’re standing on. Otherwise, how can you have respect for yourself? You might as well march off into Soylent Green machines.”

Indeed, the official list of people buried there reads like a who’s who of Ventura’s founders. Foster, Olivas, Camarillo and Ortega are but a few of the city’s pioneer families permanently residing beneath Cemetery Park’s lush grass, as well as people whose names we see on street signs,
but whose stories are unknown to most of us, like Dubbers, Thompson and Arundell. The cemetery also served as a burial place for a number of war heroes, Chinese-Americans, Jewish settlers and converted Catholic Chumash.

In the late 19th century, it was a no-brainer for the Church to use the land near Aliso Lane and Poli Street for a cemetery. Downtown was but a seedling and the hillside expanse, with its glorious ocean view, was far enough outside the city’s center not to conflict with its increasing commerce.
By the mid 1940s, the last person was laid to rest there, and the city had acquired most of the cemetery by default. In a world increasingly concerned with appearances, its high visibility near the entrance to downtown became an issue. The cemetery was finally wiped clean of all funereal vestiges in 1963, after the Los Angles Archdiocese deeded the Catholic segment to the city.

According to city historian Richard Senate, only one person voiced opposition to the “improvement.” But with the call to modernization ringing like a church bell, history was being obliterated nationwide, so Ventura was really not unique in its disregard for its forbears. “Cemeteries are great repositories of human history,” said Senate, “and as such, they are important to us.” But, he added, “It’s a view that the city didn’t share in the 1960s.”

Catherine Barrier, a preservation advocate with the esteemed Los Angeles Conservancy, said that a similar attitude toward preservation prevailed throughout California in the 60s. She cited the “clearance of the magnificent Victorian homes on Bunker Hill in Los Angeles as an example of the comparative lack of a preservation ethic in L.A.”

Most of the laws enacted to protect burial grounds and historic places weren’t in place until just after the cemetery was so severely altered. Were the city to attempt a similar project today, some expensive and time-consuming obstacles would, at the very least, slow the process down.

Though preservationists and historians find the cemetery’s current condition disgraceful, others like city clerk Barbara Kam stand behind the decision to transform the cemetery into a public park. Kam said the cemetery’s condition in 1963 was more disrespectful to the dead than the resulting removal of their headstones. The weeds were so overgrown, she said, “If you walked through [the cemetery] you’d get lost. It was like going through a corn maze.” Worse still were the vandalism and theft that plagued the unkempt graveyard. It even became trendy to steal headstones and place them in one’s garden, a gruesome hobby for such a conservative community. This is why Kam feels that divesting the cemetery of the headstones resulted in a “beautiful and peaceful” resting place for its permanent residents.

But while “It was a real nightmare to clean up” says Senate, “it could have been done in a better way.” Using a historic cemetery in Santa Barbara as a model, he described how, faced with a similar situation, that city laid the tombstones flush with the earth instead of removing them. Unfortunately, Ventura was never interested in restoration as a solution. The collective opinion at the time was that the cemetery was an eyesore, and in a city stumbling through a weak economy, it wasn’t exactly enhancing downtown’s image.

Also at issue is the way in which the tombstones were disposed of. The city has always claimed they attempted to contact descendants of the buried, giving them a chance to claim the stones. While a few were reached, many residents with family buried there say they were never contacted.

The headstones were subsequently relocated to a Parks Department storage area in Hall Canyon, not far from the cemetery, where they were reportedly arranged in alphabetical order. But residents there were understandably spooked by the macabre spectacle, thus forcing the city to go to Plan B. The city contends that the stones were then ground up and used to strengthen the Santa Clara River levee near the Olivas Adobe. The irony of the Olivas family’s gravestones being snatched from their gravesites only to be pulverized and relocated miles away to what was essentially their property, was obviously lost on everyone. In 1993, following a nasty storm, a headstone washed ashore at Surfer’s Point, causing some to question the city’s disposal story (though most agree that the stone found its way to the beach via the hands of vandals).

Schleder hasn’t given up hope, though. If it turned out that the headstones were never ground up, but rather dumped, he’d be the first one to start loading them onto trucks and returning them to their rightful owners.

While he’d rather focus on simply rectifying what he calls “a very disrespectful holding pattern,” Schleder feels the city’s treatment of the cemetery amounts to “major heresy.”

Barring any more mysterious reappearances of headstones, “Restore St. Mary’s” goal is to provide a marker—preferably granite—inscribed with the name, date of birth and date of death for each and every person known to be buried at Cemetery Park.

Senate says that proposition begs the ancient question, “Who’s gonna pay for it?” Schleder, a devout Catholic, believes “If you can get a lot of people behind you, that’s how miracles are performed.” Though somewhat idealistic, Schleder’s not naive. While he maintains that “money isn’t the problem here,” he also said he doesn’t “see any quick fixes either.”

One such solution might be, as Senate has suggested, to erect a monument inscribed with the names of the interred. Back in the 60s, when the city announced its decision to remove the headstones, it also promised to build such a monument. That never happened. Schleder sees a monument as an easy way out, saying it would be okay if everyone had died at the same time in a major catastrophe, but it wouldn’t speak to the importance of the individuals whose short time here significantly impacted the city we call home.

Schleder plans to raise public awareness via the preservation community at large. Already, organizations outside Ventura County have shown interest in the cause. He knows he’s got a long road ahead of him, but Schleder’s not fazed. Last week, he spent the better part of two hours in the dark and supposedly quite haunted environs of Memorial Park (as it’s officially known), rosary beads in hand, praying for the poor souls of St. Mary’s for “All Souls Day.”

While Msgr. O’Brien of the San Buenaventura Mission had no official opinion regarding efforts to restore the old cemetery, he respectfully acknowledged the sentiment behind it. “Even though they’ve turned to dust,” he said of the dead, “we like to know where that dust is.”


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